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World Humanitarian Day

World Humanitarian Day marks the day UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieiro de Mello, and 21 other staff were killed by a suicide bomber at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq on August 19, 2003 (Keystone / Jerzy Undro)

August 19 marks World Humanitarian Day. First celebrated 10 years ago in 2009, the day was inspired, if that is the right word, by the tragic deaths of 22 aid workers in Baghdad in 2003, when a suicide bomber attacked the UN compound there.

I remember that day 16 years ago. Many journalists, myself among them, had been looking at post-Saddam Iraq, at the ambitious task undertaken by the UN to support the country towards a new future, and considering that this could make a good story. My own trip, together with two Swiss journalists, was at the planning stage.

Those plans came to an abrupt end that day, as aid workers and journalists alike began to look hard at what seemed to be a harsh new reality of working in conflict zones.

It’s not just being caught in the crossfire,

one aid worker told me.

We have actually become targets.

In Geneva, that new reality exacerbated the grief at the loss of so many colleagues. Dr David Nabarro, then working with the World Health Organization, arrived back from Iraq still with the dust and blood of the bombing on his clothes. He told of trying to treat the wounded, while knowing some of his friends remained trapped inside the bombed UN headquarters.

I realised,

he reflected later,

that my life would never be the same.

Shrinking space, more deaths

Moving tributes are paid every year to those who died in Baghdad, and World Humanitarian Dayexternal link tries, with a new theme each year, to draw attention to the role of humanitarian workers, and the need for them to operate safely.

And yet, the attacks, the abductions, the killings continue. In fact, they appear to be rising. In 2018 there were more than 400 acts of violence against aid workers, and 131 deaths. From South Sudan, to the Ebola-afflicted Democratic Republic of Congo, to Syria, to Yemen, to Afghanistan, aid workers are risking their lives to save lives.

But somehow, the tangible help they bring, their much-stated policies of remaining completely impartial and of helping the most vulnerable, do not seem to ensure the respect and protection aid workers need to do their jobs safely.

Focus on local

And so this year the UN and aid agencies are looking at ways to promote greater safety, and greater respect. A key focus from the Red Cross is on local volunteers. The Red Cross has 191 national societies, made up of thousands of people who, when disaster or conflict strikes their community, are the first to respond.

It is {primarily} local aid workers who are being killed in the line of duty,

explains Jemilah Mahmood, Undersecretary General at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)external link.

Often our volunteers are also the breadwinners in their families.

Too often, however, attacks on and deaths of local humanitarian workers get little attention, at least compared to the headlines that tend to accompany the killing of an international aid worker.

What’s more, the safety training, and even the insurance against death or invalidity for local aid workers is often very inferior to that provided to international staff.

The Red Cross is pushing for fairer treatment for local volunteers, negotiating an insurance scheme, and encouraging more safety training.

We want to ensure that people on the ground, local volunteers, get what is afforded to international workers,

says Jemilah Mahmood.

It is the responsible and ethical thing to do, it’s not an add-on.

Focus on women

Meanwhile the UN’s office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairsexternal link has chosen to make women the focus this year. Amid evidence that female aid workers are at greater risk of violence, particularly sexual violence, than their male counterparts, OCHA says it wants to celebrate their ‘strength, power and perseverance.’

That should mean more than simply celebrating individual achievements, believes Shama Mall of the CHS Alliance, an organisation which promotes the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability.external link

Women humanitarians are essential for an effective response,

she points out.

We gain access to the most vulnerable in a crisis: women, children, older people.

At the same time however, women aid workers can face mistrust, even from their own communities, if their work is seen to cross cultural or societal barriers.

I remember during the 2005 South Asia Earthquake response it was so difficult to access the women living in some of the more conservative and remote communities in North Pakistan,

says Shama Mall.

We had to negotiate with male community leaders before we could meet the women. Fearful of the changing cultural norms, communities can view women humanitarians as a threat.

‘Practice what we preach’

Shama believes aid agencies have an as-yet largely unmet responsibility to address the specific challenges women face when carrying out humanitarian work.

But she adds, the employment practices of those same aid agencies sometimes still perpetuate gender imbalance:

As humanitarian and development personnel, we strive to support and empower marginalised groups, including women, to secure their basic rights.

Yet as female employees in the sector we know we can be treated differently, stereotyped, pigeonholed. We still don’t see gender-balanced humanitarian responses.

Time then, she believes, for the humanitarian community to look inwards, and consider

why we do not apply the same rules and standards within our organisations that we externally promote? We need to practice what we preach.

Erosion of principles?

But as the humanitarian community unites on August 19 to honour aid workers, and the role of women aid workers in particular, there is another nagging worry.

Whatever aid agencies themselves do to increase safety, to raise awareness of the particular challenges for women, and the particular contributions made by them, there is still the fear that as attacks on aid workers increase, the space for humanitarian work is shrinking, fuelled by a lack of support for the principles which underpin such work.

2019 is also the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, a set of rules often violated, but nevertheless steadfastly supported for decades by world leaders, and viewed by many as irreversible.

But today, the Conventions, and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, do not get such vocal backing from government leaders. Instead the focus is on putting national interests first, on protecting borders. So much so that some organisations in the US and Europe even face prosecution for helping migrants and asylum seekers.

This ‘criminalisation of aid’ could, Jemilah Mahmood of the Red Cross fears, have serious implications for the safety of humanitarian work.

When aid is criminalised, and there is politicisation of humanitarian assistance, of course it will have implications for security and safety,

she says.

Those implications are: more restrictions on how and where aid workers can operate, less respect and understanding for the crucial role they play in conflict and crisis, and perhaps even more attacks and deaths.

A tragedy not just for humanitarians, but for humanity.

Imogen Foulkes is originally from Scotland, and began her career with Scottish television, before moving to swissinfo’s predecessor Swiss Radio International. She has been the BBC’s Geneva and Switzerland Correspondent since 2004. Her assignments have taken her from an ICRC medical mission in Colombia, to UN human rights promotion in Tunisia, to UN support for elderly refugees in Serbia. And, from the heart of the new Gotthard tunnel on opening day, to the tops of Switzerland’s shrinking glaciers.


You can follow Imogen Foulkes on twitter at @imogenfoulkes, and send her questions and suggestions for UN topics.

It’s August 19th[1], and it is time for us to celebrate and recognize the brave souls who risk their lives in the in the way of humanity.  These individuals put those in need before themselves irrespective of the dangers and adversities they may face in the process. This World Humanitarian Day, as celebrated globally, builds on the momentum of the #NotATarget campaign spearheaded by the UN and followed by the global humanitarian community last year.

Each one of us has the ability to inspire others to do good; may it be through our words or through our actions. Some of us inspire people more than others and touch the lives of those around them with positivity, care and endless empathy. Today, we share stories of some of the most inspiring and relentless humanitarian workers we know.

Shahida Sarwar, in the field of humanitarian response and rehabilitation since 2006, has passionately been working for the progress of the local communities in her hometown of Mansehra. Shahida has committed all her energy and time into ensuring she provides the best and most accountable emergency relief services as well skill development opportunities to the people she serves so that they can benefit from being equipped with sustainable livelihoods. Shahida is currently employed with Helping Hand for Relief and Development, an NGO working in Pakistan.

Recalling one of her more traumatizing experiences in her professional life, Shahida said,

 I was working for World Vision in District Mansehra in 2010. We were working on an emergency response project for local communities. On a Wednesday morning, ten unknown masked men attacked the World Vision office. I lost seven colleagues that day. I was among the injured and got seven stitches on my forehead. We were left helpless, traumatized and frightened. This incident did not break my courage and motivation towards helping others. Taking this incident as a gift of a second life, I stood up strong again and was even more determined than ever to help and work with the underprivileged children, women and men in the area. As a social mobilizer today, I believe I have a vital role of conveying the message of humanity and that humanitarian workers are #NotATarget. We are here to help, not harm anyone. The smiles I see in the communities I work with makes me feel honored and content.
This humanitarian day, my message is that we all need to join hands with humanitarian workers working endlessly around the globe to foster empowerment, prosperity and help improve the lives of those in need.

Jhaman Das Parmar, a post-graduate in Sociology, has been working in the development sector in Sindh since 2012.

I have been working with various local and national organizations in Taluka[1] Chachro, Tharparkar district. Helping communities in Tharparkar is my motivation to work.

Sharing one of his experiences, Jhaman said,

In Kankayo village of Taluka Chachro, the community was very conservative and rigid with organizations who came to help people in the village. This was due to many prevailing myths and misunderstanding about the role of NGOs in the region. Many of these communities faced innumerable social and economic challenges including malnutrition, night blindness, illiteracy and limited access to appropriate healthcare, especially for women. Working as a Social mobilizer with AWARE, I was determinate to bring change in Kankayo. When I first visited the area, the villagers clearly refuse to talk to me and stopped me from entering their village.

Jhaman decided to start his work from a small neighborhood, whose people were more welcoming and progressive as compared to the other nearby villages.

The neighborhood had seven homes where I initially held meetings. I explained the importance of water schemes and education of children to the residents of these households. The elders in the neighborhood realized that I was not coming to them for my interest, but to make progressive development in their village. After three months of frequent meetings, the elders approached the village people about the changes I spoke about. Being influential figures, the elders were able to convince the villagers to allow AWARE to work in their village for their development. Our team, including myself, held sessions and implemented project interventions. We set up Solar Powered Water Schemes and constructed schools, equipped with furniture, good infrastructure and computers in the village. Today, that village is considered as a model village and other villages have themselves requested for our organization’s assistance.
On this humanitarian day, my message is to pledge to help others without fearing hurdles.”

Nadia Riasat, Senior Program Officer at Community World Service Asia, shared her experience of facing hurdles while working on an aid distribution project.

 Working as Program Coordinator on Adult Basic Education Society (ABES) in district Mianwali of Punjab, we provided aid assistance to the victims of floods in the years 2010, 2011 and 2014. Communities were forced to leave their homes with limited belongings. These communities lived in camps with limited access to clean water, sufficient food, proper healthcare and hygienic environment. Through our emergency relief projects, we provided aid assistance to these vulnerable communities. All the project staff assembled the food and non-food items according to the number of beneficiaries shortlisted. Only my male colleagues went to the communities for aid distribution. Many of my fellow humanitarian workers were often mobbed during the aid distribution, as the number of expected project participants present would exceed the initial anticipated number. Some of my colleagues would return with minor injuries and ripped clothes. Humanitarian workers have faced various incidents of intentional or unintentional violence in this part of the world. Despite these challenges, we do not stop helping the people in need, as we know their needs are far greater than the risks we face.
Today, I call out to support all humanitarian workers who are working for the benefit of vulnerable communities by putting their lives at risk. Let’s pledge to be part of this chain and continue to work with commitment to help and save others.

Humanitarian aid is, at its best, a reflection of the notion that whatever our differences and disagreements, people can still recognize and affirm each other’s fundamental humanity. Aid workers put their lives on the line not to exert political leverage but to practice humanity by helping those in need, irrespective of their class, creed, gender, race or religion.

[1] The UN general assembly designated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day (WHD), in memory of the 22 colleagues killed in the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad

[1] A tehsil (or taluka) is an administrative sub-division of a District.